Shiite fears, demands jeopardize French initiative to save Lebanon

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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 18 (UPI) — Internal disputes, Shiite demands and fears — fueled by new U.S. sanctions on two former officials — and the U.S.-Iran rivalry are obstructing French-led efforts to form a new government aimed at saving Lebanon from a deep economic crisis.

Lebanese rival sectarian factions, including Hezbollah, failed to honor commitments to French President Emmanuel Macron to form a cabinet of specialist ministers by a Tuesday deadline.

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Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib, a Sunni Muslim, has been quietly trying to put together a new government since he was named Aug. 31. His efforts to exclude traditional political leaders, avoid usual consultations and switch control of ministries have particularly annoyed the powerful Shiite parties, the Amal movement led by House Speaker Nabih Berri and Iran-backed Hezbollah.

U.S. sanctions imposed last week against Berri’s top aide, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, and former Transport Minister Yusuf Fenianos for engaging in corruption and enabling Hezbollah angered both groups, prompting their insistence on taking back the Finance Ministry and naming the Shiite ministers in the new government.

“No one wishes a confrontation and an escalation is in no one’s interest,” Kassim Kassir, a political analyst and expert on Islamic movements, told UPI. “But no one, too, can impose his conditions. No one would accept that.”

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Kassir said all Macron wants is for Lebanon to form a cabinet that would restore confidence in the country and start implementing urgent reforms. But former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a group of former heads of government, who selected Adib, took advantage of the French initiative “to run the country and exclude the other political parties.”

“The new cabinet cannot be formed without the approval of the parties,” he said, referring to Shiite groups, as well as the Christian Free Patriotic Movement headed by Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun.

Kassir acknowledged that new U.S. sanctions increased worries for Berri and Hezbollah: “Berri felt that he was targeted. It was like a warning to him.”

France said Wednesday, after the deadline had passed, that “it is not yet too late” for Lebanese officials to “assume their responsibilities and finally act in the sole interest of Lebanon” by allowing Adib to form a government that reflects the “seriousness of the situation,” according to a statement by Macron’s office.

A new deadline has been set for Sunday.

Macron’s initiative is the last chance to save Lebanon, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt wrote on Twitter.

The country is on the verge of collapse as a result of years of political disputes, corruption and economic mismanagement.

“It seems that some did not understand or do not want to understand that the French initiative is the last opportunity to save Lebanon and prevent its disappearance, as the (French) foreign minister said clearly,” Jumblatt wrote.

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Amin Kammourieh, a journalist and independent political analyst, told UPI the fresh U.S. sanctions came “to make matters worse as they reached Berri” and so the Shiites felt that they are targeted. “They won’t accept to be eliminated from political life…They control the country and are well-armed and thus will not give in.

“If they are to end up in prison,” he said, because of their years of engagement in corruption, “they will let the country burn.”

A new government and the speedy adoption of reforms are needed to unblock international support and persuade the International Monetary Fund to finance a rescue plan, the beginning of a long recovery process.

But allowing the Shiite and other parties to name their ministers to the new government would mean a duplication of the previous cabinets, run by the same politicians responsible for the country’s deterioration.

Experts say the Shiite parties are playing at the edge of the abyss and Berri might paint himself into a corner. International pressures could intensify, making the situation very complicated and dangerous.

Will there be a compromise to satisfy the Shiites or more sanctions targeting them?

The United States and France are showing patience, but if they realize that their efforts are leading nowhere, they may impose more sanctions on Lebanese officials and wait for them to come to them.

Hezbollah, Amal and their patron Iran can’t bear the responsibility of letting Lebanon collapse. It is also not in the interests of the United States and France to see the tiny country falling apart.

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If Lebanon plunges into chaos, Paris fears an influx of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees to Europe while Washington is more concerned about Israel’s security and reactivation of Islamic State sleeper cells.

The United States and France also differ over how to deal with Hezbollah. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned this week that the Lebanese crisis cannot be resolved without tackling the issue of Hezbollah’s arms.

On Thursday, the U.S. treasury blacklisted a senior Hezbollah Executive Council official identified as Sultan Khalifah As’ad and two Lebanon-based companies, Arch Consulting and Meamar Construction, accused of being linked to the Iran-backed Shiite group.

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